I’ve never really bought Maslow

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll cop to it right from the start: I was that student (in the front of the class, usually, which is probably even worse) rolling my eyes at some of the human development content in every practice/human behavior/child development class in my undergraduate social work education. My fellow instructors, you probably know the type–member of the Democratic Socialist Party, organizing a protest for just about everything, not totally grasping the intense privilege she enjoys in higher education?

I came, relatively quickly, to appreciate much of the clinical wisdom that seemed not-quite-radical-enough to me in those heady days before I actually did any practicing. Certainly I am glad that I had to learn how to listen actively, how to reframe, how to tap into people’s inherent motivations, how to identify hurt and accompany people through it.

In other words, I was (mostly) totally wrong, inexcusably impatient, and terribly naive.


I never really bought into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and, unlike most of the rest of what I was so eager to gloss over, my skepticism when it comes to Maslow has only increased.

Because, really, I just don’t believe that we need shelter or employment, or even health or food, more than we need to feel that we belong, that we are respected, and that our lives have meaning.

My work, especially that which happens alongside people who are experiencing tremendous need in those first 2 or 3 tiers of the hierarchy, has only confirmed my sense that the pyramid is fairly paternalistic, and that people’s real search for ‘quality of life’ proceeds in a far different manner than this ladder would have us believe.

I see it in the individuals with severe mental illness who, despite insecurity in their housing and distance from their family members, root themselves in the community created at their community mental health center and find ways to creatively tell their stories in pursuit of greater justice.

I see it in the individuals experiencing homelessness, who, major needs in that bottom tier notwithstanding, tell me that their primary advocacy objective is to address stigma, because what hurts even more than being homeless is being hated for being homeless.

And I see it, and have seen it, over and over again in the individuals with significant challenges–big gaps, sometimes, in their ‘hierarchy of needs’, who only need to be asked to join with their peers and fight for their rights.

They aren’t waiting until they have enough to eat and a good place to live and a decent job.

They are craving, just like we all crave, an opportunity to earn respect and build community and experience purpose…

knowing that, in our society, those ‘higher order’ tiers can be the foundation from which the initial levels of the hierarchy are secured.

We–our profession, our society, our organizations–do ourselves and those we serve (none of whom, including myself, I’d really consider at Maslow’s ‘self-actualization’ level!) a great disservice when we assume that the best that we can collectively accomplish (empowerment and respect and purpose and community) is, quite visually, ‘beyond’ those to whom structures have denied the basics of life.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that food and shelter and clothing aren’t important. Or that we can pretend as such when we’re getting folks engaged in collective action. That’s a mistake, and it’s alienating and harmful and offensive.

But life doesn’t happen in neat stages. And we could do with quite a bit less hierarchy, I think.

2 responses to “I’ve never really bought Maslow

  1. Ultimately, self actualization, esteem, love and belonging cannot happen before you are sustained by food for example; at least in the long term of it all. It does depend on how you look at it and interpret the whole idea of it. Many of these things will go hand in hand with each other. Love may not happen in my opinion without confidence, but without both you don’t get to the next step for example. One may suffer from stigma of being homeless, but once one has a home, the stigma can go away.Even if the stigma attached to homelessness were of a nicer opinion, the individual would still be homeless which is an environmental lacking of safety to some degree.

    • Absolutely, Kevin, and certainly I don’t mean to imply that food and shelter aren’t important. I just think it’s dangerous for us to ever presume that someone can’t care about self-esteem or social relationships, for example, until they have ‘secured’ their basic needs, because that’s not the way that anyone’s mind really works, at least that I’ve met…last month, I was doing a focus group with a group of moms who are homeless, and they were just as focused on their mental health and well-being as their (very dire) living situations. As you said, they go hand in hand…maybe if Maslow had used a circle instead of a pyramid?? Thanks for your comment!

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